Written by Marijn Nieuwenhuis.

The Transformation of China’s Territory

China’s territory is in the process of historical change. And by that I mean to say that its material foundation, the very stuff of territory, is in the process of a literal transformation. I am referring to the creeping desertification that swallows every year thousands of square kilometres of productive soil. Desertification at present takes place at more than twice the pace it did during the period from 1950 to 2000. The Gobi desert alone is said to gobble up “3,600 square kilometres of grassland each year, creating powerful sandstorms, robbing farmers of food-producing land, and displacing people from their homes.” Some speak of “one of the greatest environmental disasters of our time” while others argue that it is “probably the largest conversion of productive land into sand anywhere in the world.” The State Forestry Administration has identified land desertification as “the most important ecological problem in China” and it likely that climate change only furthers that importance.

Many accounts have rightfully pointed out that the threat to the subsistence of about a third of China’s population, affecting especially those in the western and northern territories, could pose serious challenges to both political and economic stability. The total damage of desertification to the national economy is estimated at roughly RMB 54 million per year but that burden is not equally shared by all regions. Research shows that “for seriously desertified regions [in the country’s north and west]…, the loss amounts to as much as 23.16 percent of… annual GDP”. The fact that one-third of the country’s land area is eroded has led some 400 million people to struggle to cope with a lack of productive soil, destabilised climatological conditions and severe water shortages. Droughts damages “about 160,000 square kilometres of cropland each year, double the area damaged in the 1950s.” Blaming the desertification on overgrazing and bad cultivation, the state has since 2005 started to reallocate millions of people from dry and barren territories under its controversial and hotly contested “ecological migration” programme.

The sand transformation of China’s territory is furthered by decades of deforestation. Greenpeace writes that only two percent of the original forests in China have remained intact – “that’s just 55,448 square kilometres, of which only 0.1 per cent is fully protected.” Despite extraordinary efforts by the Chinese Government to reduce the rate of erosion, culminating in the largest reforestation project ever undertaken, reports showed that the “desertification trend has not fundamentally reversed.” A senior official recently was quoted saying that it would “take 300 years to turn back China’s advancing deserts at the current rate of progress.” It is not an understatement to suggest that the Government’s challenge of confronting the material transformation of its own territory is one of gigantic and unprecedented proportions. One could argue, and I would concur, that the state is faced with the material limits of its territorial politics.

A Swirling Geopolitics

Dust and sand storms have intensified as a result of China’s transformative desertification process and now pose provocative geopolitical and biopolitical challenges. Whirling soil sediments from the Gobi deserts have become an annual plague in the country’s Western parts but are now also shown to move all the way across the Pacific Ocean and beyond. Material traces of China’s deserts have been found in places as far as New Zealand and the French Alps. The transnational transportation of harmful materialities has an immediate effect on both ecological and social geographies. “Yellow Sand” is said to damage the Korean and Japanese economies for billions of US dollars each year. Even worse off is Mongolia, which itself is going through territorial desertification, and, according to climate projections, is said to “see more warming than any other East Asian country, with average temperatures increasing more than five degrees by 2090.” Together, the deserts of the two countries form (after the Sahara) the second largest dust source on Earth.

It is thus not only the soil of territory that is going through a process of transformation but also the atmosphere above the ground of territory. The inhalation of particulate matter is demonstrated to have devastating effects on the biological health of animals and humans alike. Asian dust has in the last decade been linked to both cardiovascular and respiratory diseases while more recent research discovered “a statistically significant association between Asian dust storms and daily mortality.” Dust storms not only transport materialities but also toxic pollutants, bacteria, viruses, pollen and fungi. Microbiologists have shown that the concentration of aerial viable bacteria (CFU) during Asian dust events in Taejon, Korea, “increased on average 4.3 times over that observed under normal atmospheric conditions.” The environmental effects of China’s modernisation project are even felt in places as far away as the US. A commentator in the New York Times wrote in a recent article that the “movement of air pollutants associated with the production of goods in China for the American market has resulted in a decline in air quality in the Western United States.” Analyses in the Earth sciences, for which dust cycles have become a core research subject, show that “the role of dust in the Earth system extends well beyond its impact on the radiation balance, and involves the interactions with other physical, chemical and biogeochemical processes on global scales.”

Given their transnational character, it is no surprise that Dust and Sand Storms (DSS) are now also becoming an important policy concern for multilateral governance. The Asian Development Bank has together with several UN agencies and regional countries set up the Prevention and Control of Dust and Sandstorms in Northeast Asia. The main objective “of this collaborative project is to promote the establishment of a regional cooperation mechanism for the prevention and control of DSS in Northeast Asia.” The DSS issue was also an agenda point in the recent 2015 Joint Declaration for Peace and Cooperation in Northeast Asia signed by South Korea, Japan and China. All countries are already members of the Tripartite Environment Ministers Meeting (TEMM) which, in both its 16th and 17th communique (2014, 2015), considered DSS “a major environmental challenge facing the region.” The TEMM has established special working groups with experts from the three countries to “work together to improve DSS forecasting accuracy and to develop measures of vegetation restoration in DSS source areas in China.”

The materiality of China’s territory is in the process of fundamental changing. This transformation has immediate consequences which synthesise ecological and social matters of concern. What becomes evident from the country’s desertification is that the materiality of the territory is in the process of becoming a domain of political interest for both national but also international governance. Dust and sand particles do not stop at the border but cross them with the effect of transforming the biological, ecological and social life-worlds of other territories. The swirling of Chinese desert sand forces other states to take a direct interest in the monitoring and forecasting of the materiality of China’s territory.

Dr. Marijn Nieuwenhuis is a Teaching Fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick. His current research focuses on the politics of the air and deals with questions of technology, pollution, security, territory and governance, in particular in the Chinese context. Image credit: CC by World Bank Photo Collection/Flickr